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Where’s the best place to do graduate study in theology? I’ve done some rankings in the past, first in 2006 and then again in 2009. A longer ranking with a more developed rationale appeared in the pages of First Things in 2010. Some friends prodded me recently: have I changed my mind? Yes and No.

R.R. Reno My criteria are as follows: (1) orthodoxy and support for graduate students who want to think with the Church, (2) intellectual rigor, (3) commitment to students, and (4) financial aid.

The top programs remain Duke Divinity School and the University of Notre Dame . Duke continues to be the program that best combines the intellectual and cultural confidence of the liberal mainline Protestant tradition (Duke’s heritage is Methodist) with a fresh, postliberal conviction that in today’s academic culture we need to focus on renewing and deepening the traditional and apostolic character of theology. That’s the legacy of Stanley Hauerwas, a longtime professor at Duke, and it’s an approach widely shared among the leading faculty: Paul Griffiths, Reinhard Huetter, Amy Laura Hall, Warren Smith, and others.

Duke is also the best place for anyone who wants to combine theology with biblical studies. Richard Hays (currently Dean), Ellen Davis, and Kavin Rowe provide leadership within the guild of biblical scholars. Hauerwas (Gospel of Matthew) and Griffiths (Song of Songs) have written biblical commentary. Huetter plans to write one as well.

You shall know them by their fruits. There are important, creative, and influential theologians in the rising generation of scholars, and I think it’s fair to say that a disproportionate number did their doctoral degrees at Duke over the last two decades.

Notre Dame’s greatest strength is Notre Dame. The university has outstanding Christian scholars in many disciplines. As a consequence, theology is not remote or isolated. It’s a place where you can get a theological education that takes for granted the intellectual and cultural centrality of faith, and that’s a wonderful and precious opportunity, especially given the fact that academia as a whole is largely secular.

The theology department has some superb faculty: Cyril O’Regan, John Betz, Francesca Murphy, Ann Astell, John Cavadini, Gary Anderson, and others. Like their peers at Duke, they’re broadly postliberal. They see the challenges we face in an increasingly secular culture”and they respond by returning to the apostolic tradition. They also care about their students, which combined with the financial resources of Notre Dame makes for a very congenial and supportive environment for doctoral study in theology.

After Duke and Notre Dame the programs aren’t so uniformly attractive, but there remain some very good options.

#3: Catholic University. It’s an increasingly important place for theology these days. The main vehicle for graduate study is the School of Theology and Religious Studies. It’s been a troubled program for decades, often reflecting the complex problems facing Catholic theology in America: the dead-end of Rahnerian and so-called contextual theologies, a shift toward lay faculty and students, conflicts with the Church’s magisterium, and so forth.

But there are some fine people teaching there now, including Michael Root, Joseph Capizzi, and Christopher Ruddy. Moreover, Catholic University has a number of federated programs that give graduate students access to excellent faculty”or even alternative paths to graduate degrees. David Schindler, Nicholas Healy, and Michael Hanby teach at the John Paul II Center for Marriage and Family. The Dominican House of Studies provides students with instruction in a confident and intellectually resurgent Thomism.

There are two problems at Catholic University. First, the financial resources aren’t sufficient to support graduate study fully. Second, the federated programs remain inadequately integrated and coordinated. That said, there’s one significant and unique asset: a decidedly Roman and clerical tradition. It’s an illusion to imagine that theology can be done at a distance from the Church. That’s not a danger at Catholic U.

#4: Wycliffe College and the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto. Unlike Catholic U. there’s no theology department. Instead, the program is made up of federated colleges and seminaries. Wycliffe College is an evangelical Anglican seminary that also sponsors masters and doctoral students in theology. The college has some superb faculty, such as Joseph Mangina, Chris Seitz, and Ephraim Radner. Like the best professors at Duke, they’re committed to the postliberal project, broadly understood, giving the program personality and purpose. Negative: not enough money to give a full cohort of graduate students sufficient financial support.

#5: Boston College. When I look down the list of theology faculty at Boston College I tend to yawn. Many are part of the Catholic theological establishment in the U.S., which has become largely uncreative and uninteresting. But if you add in the School of Theology and Ministry (formed when the nearby Jesuit seminary was recently merged into Boston College) there are lots of professors to work with, including Khaled Anatolios, one of the most important scholars of patristic theology. In any event, they must be doing something right, because they produce good students who go on to do good work. Positive: enough money to support graduate students, which perhaps explains why their recent graduates have a winsome zeal and commitment to theology.

#6: Princeton Theological Seminary. This is undoubtedly the best place to study Karl Barth, whether in the style of George Hunsinger or Bruce McCormack. But it’s more than that. Ellen Charry and John Bowlin provide alternatives. The doctoral programs are run through the seminary. This provides a Church-focused environment that prevents theology from becoming an academic game. Positives: good financial support for graduate students and access to the vast resources of Princeton University.

In the past I’ve also included the religion department at Princeton University. It’s a unique program in many ways, one that supports and encourages graduate students. Eric Gregory is a fine mentor for students who want to think with the Church. But the more I think about it, the more I find myself coming to the conclusion that the program as a whole isn’t right for someone who wants to be trained and formed as a theologian. The program is too much a creature of the university, not the Church. You’re better off doing your degree at Princeton Theological Seminary while taking classes in the religion department.

#7: Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. By and large the program reflects the drabness of liberal Protestantism, but Bruce Marshall and Billy Abraham teach there. Abraham has trained a generation of excellent theologians, and I regard Marshall as one of the most important theologians working today, Protestant or Catholic.

#8: Yale University. The liberal Protestant tradition need not be sterile, and at Yale Divinity School it’s not. Kathryn Tanner is a very good mentor. Miroslav Volf has a fine theological imagination. Jennifer Herdt and John Hare do creative work in Christian Ethics. For a student who has a First Things view of the world, you’ll meet resistance, but for the most part it’ll be smart and useful.

#9 & #10: In the past I’ve given Marquette University good marks. Lately staffing has changed. Ralph Del Colle passed away earlier in the year, and Alexander Golitzen left to become an Orthodox bishop. This tilts the program in the direction of dead-end liberal Catholicism. There are still good folks there (Mickey Mattox, Stephen Long), but it’s less congenial than it once was. The University of Dayton is moving in the other direction, adding some new and interesting people in recent years. It’s worth a look.

As I review my list, I see that it’s tilted in a slightly Catholic direction. Mea culpa. I also see that I have no Evangelical institutions, although Wycliffe and Princeton Theological Seminary claim aspects of that heritage. In the past I’ve given Wheaton and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School a nod, but in all honesty I’m not well enough informed to have a right to an opinion on these programs.

I hope this informal ranking is helpful. Remember to read with a grain of salt. There’s no substitute for talking to current graduate students. They have the goods on the professors. And don’t forget that studying theology, the queen of the sciences, is almost always intrinsically gratifying and worthwhile. Enjoy.

R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things . He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis . His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .


R.R. Reno, Best Schools for Theology (2006)

R.R. Reno, A 2009 Ranking of Graduate Programs in Theology

R.R. Reno, Schools of Thought

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